Review: The Shadow Line 1×1

It's not HBO, it's BBC2. Or is it David Lynch?

The Shadow Line

In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2. Available on the iPlayer

Writer/director/producer of BBC2’s new thriller The Shadow Line, Hugo Blick, would have us think of BBC2 as the UK’s version of HBO. Aside from the fact that there aren’t nearly enough repeats or boxing on BBC2 for that to be true, I’m not entirely convinced that just looking at drama – or even just as The Shadow Line – that you could make that mistake.

Sure, it’s got a good cast, including Christopher Eccleston, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lesley Sharp. It’s beautifully directed and concerns the kind of difficult subject matters that HBO used to be associated with, including drug dealing and contract killing. There’s the occasional bit of swearing, too, although nowhere near the levels of The Wire or Al Swearengen in Deadwood.

One might even stretch a point and say that although HBO doesn’t really do “Lynchian weird”, the general weirdness of The Shadow Line pales into insignificance compared to the weirdness of John from Cincinnati, even if that show was somewhat unique in HBO’s history.

But arguably, as a drama, The Shadow Line is so slow-moving, so off the wall and so anti-realistic, “BBC2 is the UK’s AMC” would be more accurate.

Here’s a BBC clip, because the BBC in their wisdom haven’t bothered to stick any decent trailers on YouTube. Sorry, US readers.

In the first episode, DI Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has just returned to work after being shot on an undercover job; his partner was killed and Gabriel suffers amnesia with a bullet lodged in his head. He leads the police investigation of the murdered drug baron Harvey Wratten and finds himself in a race with the other side of the line, the drug dealers who want to know who killed their boss.

Thriller drama also starring Christopher Eccleston, Rafe Spall, Lesley Sharp and Kierston Wareing.

Is it any good?
As mentioned, the writer/producer/director of The Shadow Line is Hugo Blick. As a producer, he’s excellent. Look at the cast. Look at the budget. Look at the fact it’s filmed in London and the Isle of Man. That’s excellent producing, that is.

As a director, Blick is fabulous. Every scene is perfectly composed, although he does have a marked tendency to go monochrome with every scene – “In this scene, I will mainly be using the colour red. In the next scene, I will mainly be using the colour yellow. In the next scene…” and so on.

However, as a writer, he is intensely, intensely irritating. Naturalism is not a Hugo Blick trait, he seems. There’s barely a line of dialogue in the entire first episode that you could imagine the characters as portrayed making. It isn’t realistic, it isn’t hyper-realistic, it isn’t Tarantino-esque, it isn’t even theatrical.

It’s Blick either being a bit mental or showing of – I can’t decide which. It’s the kind of dialogue that involves human beings not behaving like human beings, going on grand elliptical journeys, concentrating on tiny little details of everyday life to the exclusion of anything plausible.

Indeed, a lot of the action is like that, too. Imagine drug dealers that are intensely polite and nice and give out business cards. Imagine thugs that make pig noises to wind up other thugs but don’t get suspicious when those other thugs get into the lift with them. Imagine police officers going on grand verbal journeys to avoid using the c word to insult other cops who merely want to check an ID card – when they’d just use the c-word in real life. Imagine police officers taking bribes but having the bribes posted to their wives, instead of taking them with them.

You don’t have to – Hugo Blick already has.

Frustrating though the dialogue and indeed much of the plot of this first episode is, it’s actually quite an engrossing show, once you enter this weird parallel universe Blick has constructed for us. We have Christopher Eccleston as a drug-dealing florist with an Alzheimer’s wife (Lesley Sharp) trying to cope with the assassination of his former drugs boss.

Meanwhile, Chiwetel Ejiofor is investigating said assassination after just returning to work, having had a bullet lodged in his brain. He has amnesia and can’t remember much about when he was shot.

Who shot the boss? Why? And why’s Ecceleston’s replacement boss not here yet? No one’s seen him for over a month. Could it be that Ejiofor is actually the new boss but can’t remember it? What does it all mean? Why should I care?

As I said – Lynchian.

So despite the frustrations involved, I’m probably going to watch the next episode as well, just to see where it’s all going. If it turns out to be accidentally weird, I’m going to be sorely disappointed, but if it’s all deliberate, this could be a fun ride.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.